The Descent into Hell and why it Matters

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
1 Peter 3:18-20
Luke 12:49-56

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine


3:18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God, your word is a light to our feet and a lamp to our path. Let your face shine on us to restore us that we may walk in your way. Amen.


My wife, Monnie, is a Hospice chaplain, and occasionally she is asked to supply preach for Presbyterian Churches when their pastor is on vacation.  She has a list of questions that she asks whenever she goes to a new church.  Some of the questions are: Do you say the prayer before or after you take up the offering?  Do you say the benediction from the pulpit or from the back of the sanctuary?  Where do I sit?  And the big question she asks, do you all descend into hell or not?


She has to ask because there is a great discrepancy throughout Presbyterian churches and some other Christian denominations about what is included in the Apostle’s Creed.  In fact, you Episcopalians like the Methodists don’t say Jesus descend into hell.  Most Presbyterian congregations do, but in the old red hymnal it still has an asterisk at the bottom of the creed saying something like, “This phrase can be omitted.”   Without a doubt it is the most controversial phrase in the creed.  Did Jesus descend to the dead?  Did he descend to the abyss?  Did he descend into Hell? What does the phrase mean?


When we say in Presbyterian service that “He descended into Hell,” it is an enormous theological statement. While the church has tried to distance itself from the idea of hell, the reality is our image of a fiery place of torment devoid of God’s presence — is an image that is based more on the poets Dante and Milton than on the Bible.[1]


I know that a good many people don’t believe in hell but it is biblical.   Hell is depicted in both the Old and New Testaments.   In the Old Testament the word for hell is Sheol and in the New Testament the word is Hades.  Both of these terms were used to describe a place where dead souls were said to go.   It was thought that all dead souls went to this place so that means that even Jesus’ in his real human death, went there.   Hell is also described in scripture as a place of suffering and torment.   There is no single definition or understanding of hell.  Some believe it to be a physical place.   Others see it as separation from God.  Some view hell as a place of punishment.  You can find scriptural references for all these views.  There is no specific answer to what hell is like and whether or not it is an actual place.


Research has been done asking random people if they believed in heaven and hell.  Over 80% of respondents believed that they were going to heaven.  Then they were asked how many other people they knew would go to heaven with them. Those same respondents said that only 60% of the people they knew would join them.  The research tells us that we are judgmental and we are exclusive.  You see the problem.   We think that we are going to heaven but those who lust, who are gluttons, who are greedy, etc., they are going to hell right along with the violent dictators and perpetrators of evil.  We like the idea of hell for other people, but not for ourselves and certainly not for Jesus.  But every week in the Presbyterian worship service we stand and say that Jesus descended into hell.


There is a biblical warrant for this creedal statement.  According to Psalm 139 it says, “If I go up to heaven, thou art there. If I go down to hell, thou art there also.”  And here in 1 Peter, Jesus, having died, descended into the place of departed spirits to make a proclamation before he rose again from the dead.  He descended into hell.  We realize that even in hell, God is searching for us.  Even in hell, the proclamation is made.  Even in hell, the door is held open. Now, that’s good news.[2]


Just as there are various different ideas of hell, there follows various ideas about what this view that Jesus descended into hell means.  One common view that is supported in scripture from our reading from I Peter today is that Jesus went to hell in order to preach to those who had lived before Jesus.  It helped explain how Abraham and all those who lived before Jesus could be given the opportunity for salvation.


In the Presbyterian study for confirmation in our denomination it asks the question, “What do you affirm when you say that he descended into hell?”  The answer being, “That the Lord took upon himself the full consequence of our sinfulness in order that we might be spared.”  Meaning that Jesus went to hell to defeat the powers of evil once and for all.  Because Jesus descended into hell, evil can no longer have a hold on humanity.  There is no place that has not been invaded by Jesus.  There is no place that is beyond the reach of God’s love, grace and mercy.


Most of our images of Hell and the major influence on our culture comes from Dante’s inferno.  The 14th-century epic poem depicting Hell as nine circles of suffering.  There is a sign over the gates of hell reads, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  Hell is a place of no hope.


I think of hell as being a place without God, the absence of God.   In scripture, hell, or Sheol, is ultimately the final absence of God.


So when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” he was in a state of hell, where he felt abandoned by God in his death.


But we all know that we do not have to wait till death to experience this kind of hell. There are hells right here in life.


  • There is the hell of addiction where getting the next drink, the next fix is all your mind can comprehend, there is no place for God. It is a living hell.


  • There is the hell of the hospital room where you learn the diagnosis and that there is nothing more the doctors can do.


  • There is the hell of the dreaded phone call in the middle of the night that there is has been an accident.


  • There is the hell that he or she does not love you anymore and wants out.


  • There is the hell of guilt and wishing that you had not done what you did and wanting so much that it aches to go back and redo it. The hell of guilt and shame.


  • There is the hell of physical pain like the pain Jesus suffered on the cross.


So, when we say that Jesus descended into hell.  We are affirming that Jesus went to that place of no God, that place of no hope and changed it forever.


That is why I want us to say this phrase whenever we say the Apostle’s Creed. Because it tells of the ultimate love of God who would go anywhere for us, even to the depths of Sheol.  Reverend Al Winn, a Presbyterian pastor born and raised in the Deep South, his experiences influenced his ministry.  He became the insistent voice for those who were downtrodden, downcast and disempowered wrote about Jesus descending into hell saying,

“He (Jesus) has descended into hell. And so he can go with you into the depth of your own private hell, whatever it is. He can plumb the abyss and rob it of it wordless terror.  He can conquer the death that it in you. He can bring health and wholeness and life. I do not know what your private hell is, but I know it is not out of bounds for him.”[3]


This means there is no place that is beyond God.  Even those places where we wonder if God is there, where we feel lost and alone and angry and sad and guilty, Jesus has even been there.  He has descended into the depths of hell for you and for me.   He has brought hope to a place that knew no hope.


This past Tuesday I was at a meeting at the Presbytery office and I was staring off at the wall and saw a picture of a young African boy, skinny and barely clothed, limping along on crutches.   It was a disturbing sight.  Under the picture the caption said, “Because no place on earth is Godforsaken.” It was a poster from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  Of course, I immediately thought of this sermon for today.   I immediately thought, “That is why we say Jesus descended into hell!  Because there is no place that God will not go, there is no place without hope, even the war torn villages of the Middle East, in poverty ravaged Africa, not in the mean streets of Lower Price Hill or in the privileged lanes of Indian Hill, it is good news for all Christians aching to feel the presence of God.  Saying Jesus descended into hell brings hope to all places of life. “Because no place that is Godforsaken.”


Let us pray:

[1] The Very Rev. Robert Giannini, Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15, Psalm 25

First Sunday in Lent March 09, 2003.

[2] Ibid.

[3] (A Christian Primer, p. 133)

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